THE day after the November election one newsman asked a public figure how long he thought the George Bush ``honeymoon'' would last. The man looked at his watch and quipped, ``It's over now.'' That had been the expectation among most political observers: The campaign had become so bitter, the charges and countercharges so nasty, that the Democrats wouldn't give Mr. Bush any relief from opposition.
Now the New York Times, which endorsed Michael Dukakis, is most surprisingly calling George Bush ``a hit as President-elect,'' and observing that while ``there has been more style to this transition than substance, there is time for that. Governing is also a matter of art, of conveying authority and establishing confidence. Mr. Bush seems to have got that part right.''
Indeed, the President-elect has been making all the right moves and saying all the right things. He has shown the quality that he promised in his acceptance speech when he portrayed himself as a quiet man and a listener.
He has particularly left time for those whose opposition could have wrecked his administration at the outset: the Democratic leaders of Congress. And he has also done much to disarm Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and his old foe, Governor Dukakis, with his courtesy, charm, and willingness to hear their views at length.
So once again we have a new or, at least, different George Bush. The real Bush does seem to be more than a little elusive. There was the mild and compliant vice-president. Then there was the statesmanlike speaker at the national convention. And then there was the hard-hitting campaigner. I called this ``aggressive campaigning,'' a description that stirred one reader to write:
``Yes, George Bush gave a very fine acceptance speech. It gave rare insight into his humanity. But to call his character assassination of Dukakis `aggressive campaigning' is to blatantly ignore the fact that Bush was willing to sacrifice a large portion of his integrity in pursuit of his political goal.''
Bush's severest critics see him as a chameleon who changes colors to fit his needs of the moment. His friends see him as a man of character who sticks close to his principles but who, as a superb politician, can, when he thinks it is necessary, wield a wicked political sword.
They say that, left alone to do his job, Bush is always sweet-tempered and easy to work with. But, they add, he under fire is combative. He's out to win.
This is the time of the year, when charity is in the air, to wish the best for our President-elect and cite his assets and what he is doing right.
Barbara Bush looks awfully good to me and to a lot of other people, too. Writes Doris Willens in the Times: ``One thing that I, a Dukakis voter, am sure to love about the Bush White House is Barbara Bush as First Lady. As a woman of a certain age, I am awed by her self-confident acceptance of the life cycle. Not for Mrs. Bush the beauty salon cover of her white hair, nor the anorexic embrace of the `can never be too rich or too thin' doctrine.... For me, Barbara Bush is a personal kind of morning in America.''
Barbara Petranek, writing in the Washington Post, said of the new First Lady: ``After a decade of such paragons of female maturity as Joan Collins, Linda Evans, and Cher, there is finally the prospect of a nationally known woman who looks her age (63) and is proud of it.''
It turned out that there were a great many voters who not only liked Bush's ``family values'' but also the evidence that he is a true family man, one who is genuinely loved by a family of prodigious size.
Bush has already put together a Cabinet and made other appointments that reflect credibility on his judgment. The rave reviews on these selections have been bipartisan.
Democratic House majority leader Tom Foley speaks glowingly of Bush's choices, particularly of Secretary of State-designate James Baker III and the new national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. He calls Bush's conservative chief of staff, John Sununu, ``brilliant.''
John Tower's elevation to defense secretary has drawn some criticism. Some observers see Mr. Tower as having been too closely associated with those who produce the defense hardware. But Tower is very knowledgeable about defense matters, and he will get along well with Congress. Bush says that Tower is strongly positioned to make the tough decisions involved in cutting back on defense spending.
Jack Kemp at Housing and Urban Development is a conservative who has shown his deep interest in helping the poor and disadvantaged. He may prove himself quite innovative. William Webster, who, after bringing stability to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is now doing the same at the Central Intelligence Agency, was a popular reappointment.